Defending Composition: Real-World Practice

We’ve been talking a lot lately about the place of composition in the university. It seems like we have held more than a few hypothetical conversations defending composition classes. This weekend, I got the chance to put it in to practice, when I had a G-chat with a close friend. He’s currently adjuncting at a community college, in the history department. Out of respect for him, and his institution, I changed his name and any reference to his school. I’ve posted parts of our discussion below, in which we discuss who is responsible for writing instruction.
[we started off by talking about grading]
Friend: i went to a committee meeting yesterday regarding english writing ability and the composition courses at [college]….i thought of you…it was terribly interesting.
Sent at 4:00 PM on Saturday
Leigh:  yeah it usually takes 20-30 minutes per paper
and they write 5 papers a semester..
Friend:  hummm…a bit longer than me for sure.
i have response papers to grades; quizzes and exams at certain times of the semester….not much else. although recording them online sometimes takes a while
Leigh:  but you have more sections than I do.
next semester I’ll have two sections and the thought of 50 students makes me nervous
Friend:  ummm….i understand
true, i do have more sections
Friend:  yesterday, on the comitttee, the language/lit department got so mad at the lady who runs the student tutoring/writing center.
Leigh:  how well do your students write?
Friend:  and then the woman barked at me saying that departments like behavioral/soc sci need to send more of their students to her center.
Friend:  actually, the rhet/comp people from the lit department were really great
i enjoyed meeting them–finally! some decent faculty members from that dept….urgh the rest of the dept is a disaster.
Leigh:  english departments usually are lol
Friend:  but it’s not my dept’s responsibility to teach writing/comp. the students are already supposed to have attained and passed those classes by the time they come to me.
Leigh:  Yeah it’s frustrating for everyone
But it’s important for each disicpline to be aware of how writing works in their field.
and to let their students know the genre conventions and expectations
Leigh:  a lot of time professors will give these godawful prompts and not let the student know what they expect…and then they yell at us for not teaching students how to write.
Friend:  the nursing and business professors felt the same way as our department. i am sure it’s better where you are. i agree, a lot of time it is a question of jargon and instruction, but at the end of the meeting we all realized that l&l [language and lit] must reevaluate what materials they employ in their classes.
it pains me when students come to me and they say that they don’t feel comfortable writing even though they have great ability in expressing their thoughts verbally.
Leigh:  writing is seen across the university as a “service” class
but in 16 weeks…it’s hard to get everything about “college writing” in
Friend:  writing is an art and of the highest importance. as the business professor said, how can these students hope to enter into the globalized economy when they cannot even begin to express themselves properly in their own language!
Leigh:  oh I absolutely agree!
Friend:  at [college] it is a problem of organization and funds….l&l routinely has the worst performance standards out of all the departments on campus.
Leigh: how are they measure performance though?
Friend:  well, that was one of my dept’s questions
they have rubrics and all these fancy tools to supposedly measure “writing ability”
we suggested that they try a portfolio system

I couldn’t help but to think of you guys after I ended this conversation. So, how’d I do? What else could I have said?

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One Response to Defending Composition: Real-World Practice

  1. Jim Porter says:

    I hear a couple of recurring themes here in terms of how faculty in other departments often think about “writing”: (1) Writing is assumed to be delivery of ideas or content, and the key principles of “good writing” are clarity (perspicuity) and correctness. This comes right out of Locke and the rhetoric of the Scottish commonsense realists (Campbell, Blair). Very narrow view of rhetoric and writing. (2) “Writing effectively” is assumed to be a singular benchmark — you either have it or you don’t — a skill to be acquired, ideally, by the end of high school. The first-year required college composition course is thus a kind of remedial course, a last resort gatekeeping check to make sure that those high school-level skills are fully acquired. Writing is generally not seen as an ongoing and complex set of literacy skills that one needs to work on throughout the entire college curriculum, and even beyond that. All this means: we have a lot of work to do to change attitudes!

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